Is there a Gorbachev for China?

China's prospects for peace can be evaluated at three distinct levels: namely, in terms of the domestic situation within the People's Republic (PRC); in terms of relations between the People's Republic on the one hand and Hong Kong and Taiwan on the other; and in terms of China's relations with its neighbors and the international community at large. The prospects for peace are different at each of these levels.

If social peace is understood as implying any general sense of unity and well-being, the prospects for social peace within China would appear to be depressing for the short and medium terms. At least this seems to be the opinion of most Chinese people and of many long-standing supporters of socialist China. In the history of the People's Republic, relations between the people and the government have never been worse than since the suppression of the "Democracy Movement" last June. The economic reform program was in an impasse from before that time because of divisions in the Communist Party leadership, and the present government had no coherent strategy for getting out of the economy even before last spring. The June 4th Massacre came as a culmination of the "old guard's" refusal to accept political reform and broader participation in the discussion of policy. The crackdown has resulted in massive popular alienation, most clearly in the cities, but also in the countryside. People are still being held prisoner for their peaceful participation in demonstrations and their general support for the movement last spring. Disaffection with the current leadership is reportedly even widespread among lower and middle level Communist Party cadres. The government's official view is that "stability" and "peace" have been restored after the "turmoil" and "chaos" of the first half of 1989. The imposition of that "order" was only possible through the suppression of one wing of the Communist Party leadership in late May 1989, and even within the current leadership differences of political orientation are apparent.

Among Chinese intellectuals one comes across a number of different scenarios concerning the evolution of the situation within China. One scenario foresees the current situation persisting for the next fifteen to twenty years. This is a cruel possibility, but it is not unthinkable. However, it seems somewhat unlikely that the degree of tension within the country can continue indefinitely. A more optimistic possibility is suggested by a number of leading Chinese intellectuals now resident abroad. According to them, there might be a long-term, gradual transition towards political reform and a more participatory form of government. This is the "best case" scenario. Unfortunately, this scenario requires a Chinese Gorbachev or at least a Jaruzelski, someone who is willing to go open for discussion or to rethink the fundamental political principles and relationships that lie at the basis of the state and who is able to advance a democratic project. Optimists might have ascribed this role to Deng Xiaoping twelve years ago, but Deng violently rejected this option last year. It now seems certain that the current triumvirate of Deng, the Prime Minister Li Peng and General Yang Shangkun are unable and/or unwilling to take on such a role, and they will be formidable obstacles in the path of anyone who might like to try.

One reason Chinese people give for suggesting that there might be a gradual transition toward democracy is that the alternative would probably be civil war, and this scenario is too terrible to contemplate. Despite denials from various official quarters, it does appear that the People's Liberation Army was seriously split over the line to be adopted toward the "Democracy Movement" last spring. It is not inconceivable that a military confrontation might emerge in the event of a leadership struggle after Deng's death. Chinese civil wars in the past have been filled with horror. Another one, undertaken with current means of warfare, is likely to be a thoroughly ghastly affair, and a true disaster for China and the world. This is the "worst case" scenario, and the one that Chinese people most fear.

he short and medium term prospects for relations between Beijing and various "minority nationalities" within the People's Republic are also poor. The Tibetans were actively agitating for some time before the "Democracy Movement" last year, and they were subjected to severe military suppression for several months before June 4th. Earlier this year the repression of an armed uprising among the Muslim peoples of Chinese Turkestan was reported. Under the current leadership in Beijing, it is unlikely that anything but repression is on the cards as a response to minority demands for reform. If there were to be a change in leadership in Beijing, prospects might be quite different. Zhao Ziyang, the deposed secretary-General of the Communist Party who has been under house-arrest since last May, declared himself in favor of a new arrangement in Tibet several months before he was overthrown. Since the military suppression of the "Democracy Movement" in June 1989, quite a number of Han Chinese intellectuals and students have come to express sympathy with the plight of the PRC's minority peoples, and especially the Tibetans. I recently heard an leading Chinese intellectual speaking out publicly against Han Chinese racism and discrimination towards other peoples within China. A well-known spokesman for one of the major Chinese opposition groups in exile has declared his party's support for Tibetan autonomy, in a form that is close to the ideas of the Dalai Lama. Statements like these mark a major change in Chinese political discourse. One must wait to see what will develop out of them.

Last year the Li Peng government raised the possibility that it might resort to sending troops into Hong Kong before 1997 (when the colony will legally be subsumed under PRC administration) if it judged the situation there to be too "unstable." Mentioning this possibility was meant to intimidate the inhabitants of Hong Kong. Here huge demonstrations in support of the "Democracy Movement" took place and some people had cited the Massacre to argue for the cancellation of the Sino-British Accord. The Beijing leadership is evidently ambivalent towards Hong Kong, and it is difficult to say what attitude they will eventually adopt. However, their desire to take over an asset that is prosperous, and the prospect of negative international reactions, are strong disincentives against a military takeover.

The spectre of armed conflict between Taiwan and the mainland, which in the 1950s seemed a constant possibility, has now dissipated. Economic links between the two have been become tighter over the last ten years, and especially over the last three since the government in Taipeh allowed its citizens to visit the People's Republic. A lucrative and growing exchange of goods between the island and the mainland is carried on through Hong Kong or "unofficially" across the Taiwan Straits, and Taiwanese investors are accorded special privileges not accorded to non-Chinese. The "military solution" imposed by the Beijing leadership on the "Democracy Movement" last year seems to have left undaunted the businessmen from the island, where nearly forty years of martial law were only recently brought to an end. Because of its own economic difficulties and its development priorities, Beijing is intent on cultivating peaceful economic relations with Taiwan. Since it is also in the island's interest to profit from this relationship, tensions can be expected to be kept within strict bounds. Prospects for peace across the Taiwan Straits are therefore good.

Prospects for peace internationally must also be deemed as good. In 1980 Chinese leaders spoke terms of a protracted and intense conflict with the Soviet Union. Though this was no doubt partly a negotiating position, the potential for military conflict seemed to be serious. The basic points of conflict were the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Soviet troops along the Sino-Mongolian border and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Initiatives undertaken by Gorbachev have completely changed that situation. The Soviet Union has withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan, and Soviet troops in Inner Asia have been downgraded and pulled off China's borders. Trade and scientific-technical exchanges between the Soviet Union and China have been consistently improving since about 1979.

China launched an invasion into Vietnam's northern provinces in 1980, in retaliation for Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia and hostility between the two persisted through the 1980s. However, since Vietnam's withdrawal from Cambodia, Sino-Vietnamese relations have been improving over the last year. This is partly because Beijing and Hanoi both have reservations about the significance of perestroika in the Soviet Union and the general political transformations in Eastern Europe. Indeed, at least one Chinese diplomat has sought to justify the military crackdown across China last June on the grounds that it has preserved his country as a force for world peace at a time of growing international uncertainty in the wake of the great changes in Eastern Europe. Chinese diplomacy has also sought to improve the country's image abroad through support for the campaign against Iraq.

As far as China's relations with Western powers and Japan are concerned, Deng Xiaoping sought to secure a privileged place in the Washington-Moscow-Beijing triangle by "leaning" toward the capitalist world during through most of the '80s. Trade between China and the OECD countries boomed, and during that time Japan became China's top trading partner. After the events of June 1989, Washington, the European Community, and Tokyo invoked temporary selective sanctions against China. There was, however, an ambiguity in the idea of sanctions on non-military trade, since Chinese involved in the reform movement had argued in favor of expanding international trade. Many continued to argue in favor of it after June 4th, on the grounds that isolating China economically would play into the hands of those opposed to economic restructuring. At the same time, the lure of the Chinese market has continued to attract foreign interest. In any event, the U.S. administration has continued to cultivate links with China; the Japanese received OECD clearance during the summer to make $5 billion of credit available to China, and in October of this year the EEC lifted most of its remaining sanctions. With this state of affairs economically, and in the absence of any observable military threat, China's relations with the West and Japan can be expected to remain peaceable.

o sum up, China's prospects for internal peace are difficult to asses, but the harsh policies of the government will probably be maintained, and disenchantment with the government will continue, in the short to medium term. Thereafter, one can only speculate about divergent scenarios. On the international front, there is no great threat to China's security and no Chinese drive for expansion, so it seems likely that, barring a dramatic turn of events, China will remain at peace for the foreseeable future. In other words, China has different prospects for peace at the international and internal levels. The differences result to a considerable extent from the current Chinese leadership's twin-track strategy of promoting harmonious relations abroad while enforcing dictatorship at home.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1991

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1991, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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